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Diana Lipton
A Bible scholar on the streets of Jerusalem

Biblical Studies for Ethiopian Jews

The Liqa Kahenat (Beta Israel High Priest), right, and Kesotch recite, translate and interpret the Orit at a special weekday reading for the Orit Guardians, Rehovot, June 2022. Photo credit: Diana Lipton

Almost exactly two years ago, I posted here about an exciting event we managed to hold between Covid lockdowns: the very first Orientation Day for the Orit Guardians, a ground-breaking new MA based in the Department of Biblical Studies at Tel Aviv University, designed to train students of Ethiopian Jewish descent to preserve and transmit their unique biblical heritage. (All but one of the photos below are mine.)

New students meet Tel Aviv University Faculty over manuscripts at the first Orit Guardians Orientation Day, Faitlovitch Collection, Sourasky Library, TAU, September 2020. Photo credit: Diana Lipton

Despite Covid and other challenges, the MA has exceeded our wildest dreams, above all because of the extraordinary students who started with us then and joined the next year. It has been the privilege of a lifetime to share this journey with them.

First Orit Guardians Orientation Day, September 2020. Photo credit: Diana Lipton

The Orit Guardians MA is the core component of a modular and multi-dimensional research program. In its fullest form, the program will include international research projects on the sacred texts of Beta Israel (Ethiopian Jews), for which major academic grants are required; applications are underway!

What is the Orit?

The Orit is the Torah of Beta Israel. As well as Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy, it contains the books of Joshua, Judges and Ruth. It is written in Ge’ez, a language used by Ethiopian Jews and Christians for sacred purposes.

Among the Beta Israel, Ge’ez is understood by the Kesotch (religious leaders, the plural of Kes); a handful of scholars; and a tiny minority of the community. In contemporary Israel – the world’s largest center of Beta Israel – few young people are fluent even in Amharic and Tigrinya, the spoken languages of Ethiopian Jews, let alone Ge’ez.

Manuscripts of the Orit, which are produced not in scrolls, but in books with wooden or leather covers, sometimes covered with fabric for protection, were brought to Israel by Beta Israel families during the historic immigrations from Ethiopia in the 1980s and ‘90s. Now almost all are in the hands of Beta Israel synagogues and private families. Along with an Orit at Yad Ben Tzvi in Jerusalem, an exception is the Orit that was donated to the National Library of Israel.

An Orit manuscript, the rare books room of the National Library of Israel. Photo credit: Diana Lipton
Orit Guardian students at a special visit to Israel’s National Library, Summer 2021. Photo credit: Diana Lipton
Orit Guardian students at special visit to Israel’s National Library, Summer 2021. Photo credit: Diana Lipton

Why do we need to conduct research on the Orit?

Scholars have shown great interest in the laws, customs, traditions, and liturgy of Beta Israel, but until now, almost no scholarly attention has been paid to the Orit. We do not know how many copies of the Orit are in existence, and even the manuscripts in public collections have not been systematically analyzed. This lack of data and knowledge is more troubling than it might at first appear. Unlike Torah scrolls, which are practically identical in content the world over, there are – we are now discovering – fascinating variations between different manuscripts of the Orit.

What challenges do we face?

Beta Israel is mainly an oral culture. There are no written Bible translations or commentaries, equivalent to the Onkelos and Rashi of mainstream Judaism. On Shabbat and Festivals, the Kesotch chant the Orit to their communities in Ge’ez; translate the readings into Amharic or Tigrinya; and add interpretations for the benefit of the congregation. Two Kesotch are typically involved – one to read and one to translate and interpret. Interpretations are traditionally handed down between generations of Kesotch.

Public readings of the Orit have only very rarely been filmed or recorded, let alone transcribed and analyzed by researchers. One reason for this is practical. Apart from Sigd, a festival unique to Beta Israel on which work is permitted, the Orit is recited at times when filming and recording – even by non-Jews, even using recording equipment set on timers – are prohibited. Another reason is that outsiders rarely have the level of access to the community required to pull off the complex operation of staging and filming a model reading of the Orit for research purposes.

The Liqa Kahenat (Beta Israel High Priest), right, and Kesotch recite, translate and interpret the Orit at a special weekday reading for the Orit Guardians, Rehovot, June 2022. With one of our students (center). Photo credit: Diana Lipton
The Liqa Kahenat (Beta Israel High Priest), right, and Kesotch recite, translate and interpret the Orit at a special weekday reading for the Orit Guardians, Rehovot, June 2022. Photo credit: Diana Lipton
The Liqa Kahenat (Beta Israel High Priest), right, with Kesotch, Rehovot, June 2022. Photo credit: Diana Lipton
Kesotch prepare to read the Orit at a special weekday reading for the Orit Guardians, Rehovot, June 2022. Photo credit: Diana Lipton
Orit Guardian student waiting as Kesotch prepare to read the Orit at a special weekday reading for the Orit Guardians, Rehovot, June 2022. Photo credit: Diana Lipton
Kesotch at a special weekday reading of the Orit for the Orit Guardians, Rehovot, June 2022. Photo credit: Diana Lipton

What is the Orit Guardians Program?

In 2017, the National Library of Israel held a public ceremony to welcome into their collection a manuscript of the Orit donated by a Beta Israel family. Professor Dalit Rom-Shiloni, of the Department of Biblical Studies at Tel Aviv University, who was present at the ceremony, understood that night how little attention has been paid by scholars to the Orit, and how ill-equipped members of the Beta Israel community are to conduct their own academic research. There and then, she decided to try to do something about it.

Now entering its third year, the Orit Guardians MA enables students to deepen and disseminate knowledge of the unique contributions of Beta Israel to Jewish history and culture, courageously preserved over centuries. The MA itself is a two-year course, but because students rarely come with the necessary academic background for an advanced Biblical Studies degree, a year of pre-MA coursework is usually required.

Orit Guardian students in an advanced Ge’ez class taught by Tel Aviv University’s Dr. Anbessa Teferra (not pictured). Photo credit: Moshe Bedrashi

Alongside courses that are foundational for all Biblical Studies degrees, students follow a study track dedicated to the scriptures, oral traditions, and languages (Ge’ez and advanced Amharic) of Beta Israel. They also take a year-long course in Anthropology, dedicated to the crucial skills of conducting, recording, transcribing, and analyzing oral interviews, as well as to the complex issues that arise from working with members of their own communities.

Seven MA and pre-MA students are currently enrolled, with two new students entering the program in October. Our first PhD student has recently joined. All but one of our students were born in Ethiopia and came to Israel – in immensely challenging circumstances – as children. Almost all of them have close family connections with the Kesotch. One is married to a Kes, and one has recently become Kes. They are uniquely positioned to work intensively with their religious leaders, a collaboration that is crucial for the program’s overall success.

The Liqa Kehenat (Beta Israel High Priest) and a Kes, Rehovot, June 2022. Photo credit: Diana Lipton
The Liqa Kehenat (Beta Israel High Priest) and Kesotch, including one of our students, Rehovot, June 2022. Photo credit: Diana Lipton
Orit Guardian students follow the Liqa Kehenat (Beta Israel High Priest) and Kesotch as they are filmed reading, translating, and interpreting the Orit at a special weekday reading, Rehovot, June 2022. Photo credit: Diana Lipton
Orit Guardian students follow the Liqa Kehenat (Beta Israel High Priest) and Kesotch as they are filmed reading, translating, and interpreting the Orit at a special weekday reading, Rehovot, June 2022. Photo credit: Diana Lipton
Orit Guardian student and the daughter of the Liqa Kehenat, right, follow the Liqa Kehenat (Beta Israel High Priest) and Kesotch as they read, translate, and interpret the Orit at a special weekday reading for the Orit Guardians, Rehovot, June 2022. Photo credit: Diana Lipton
Orit Guardian student and the daughter of the Liqa Kehenat (Beta Israel High Priest), right, follow the Liqa Kehenat and Kesotch as they read, translate, and interpret the Orit at a special weekday reading for the Orit Guardians, Rehovot, June 2022. Photo credit: Diana Lipton

Knowledge of the translation and interpretive practices used in the oral transmission of the Orit lies almost exclusively with a small number of Kesotch born in Ethiopia. The training of Kesotch in Israel is shorter and less intensive, and the new generation cannot attain the breadth and depth of knowledge of their predecessors. The generation of Ethiopian-born and trained Kesotch will soon be taken from us, and with them, much knowledge and expertise – including linguistic – will be lost. We are fighting against the clock.

Ethiopian Jews in Israel today

Today, there are about 150,000 Ethiopian Jews in Israel. In recent years, members of the younger generations have shown a great interest in reconnecting with their roots, for example by formally learning Amharic, and by joining our program! But still, assimilation and pressure to conform to mainstream Jewish expectations are taking their toll. There are currently 15 (or fewer) Ethiopian-trained Kesotch, and about 45 Israel-trained Kesotch. The number of non-clerical members of the Beta Israel community who are proficient in the reading and comprehension of Ge’ez is so small as to be insignificant.

The immigration of Ethiopian Jews to Israel is an ongoing story of immense bravery, determination, and many challenges. Today’s Beta Israel community includes women and men who, having survived perilous journeys to Israel as young children, went on to thrive in higher education and leadership roles. But a significant proportion of Ethiopian-Israelis still struggle with poverty, discrimination and barriers to their entrée into the mainstream.

We are members of a university department, and our priorities must be academic. But we have other reasons to work so hard for this program. (This is the moment to say that my contribution is support from the sidelines; the dedication of the program’s founding Director, Prof. Rom-Shiloni is above and beyond anything I have experienced in my academic career!)

Too few Israelis, or Diaspora Jews, have been exposed to the rich heritage and history of Ethiopian Jews. And too many young Ethiopian-Israelis are growing up without knowledge of their cultural legacy, especially their sacred texts. The Orit Guardians MA gives members of Beta Israel the academic tools to help preserve their sacred texts and traditions, and to share them within and outside their communities. At the same time, the MA has already increased the presence of Ethiopian Jewish Studies, Ethiopian scholarship, and Ethiopian-Israelis in Israel’s academy and beyond.

In early August, thousands of scholars converged on Mount Scopus in Jerusalem for the first Congress since Covid of the World Union of Jewish Studies. At one well-attended session devoted to Ethiopian sacred texts and manuscript traditions, Prof. Rom-Shiloni was joined by Prof. Loren Stuckenbruck, a world-renowned scholar of Ethiopic texts, and Ted Ehro, a manuscript expert, from the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich; Sofia Dege-Muller, a specialist in Ethiopian manuscripts from the University of Hamburg; and Dr. Bar Kribus, holder of a prestigious Dan David fellowship at Tel Aviv University, whose research interests include the subject of his lecture that day: how the Kesotch were trained in Ethiopia.

A few days later, the team reconvened for what turned out to be an extraordinary workshop at TAU’s Sourasky Library for our students and other guests on Ethiopian manuscripts from the Faitlovitch Collection. (You can see their recently digitized manuscripts, documents and artefacts here.)

Ethiopian Manuscript (not an Orit) from the Faitlovitch Collection, Tel Aviv University. Photo credit: Diana Lipton
Manuscript Workshop with researchers from Hamburg University and Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich, Tel Aviv University, August 2022. Photo credit: Diana Lipton
Manuscript Workshop with researchers from Hamburg University and Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich, Tel Aviv University, August 2022. Photo credit: Diana Lipton
Manuscript Workshop with researchers from Hamburg University and Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich, Tel Aviv University, August 2022. Photo credit: Diana Lipton
Manuscript Workshop with researchers from Hamburg University and Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich, Tel Aviv University, August 2022. Photo credit: Diana Lipton

The Workshop lunch was a traditional Beta Israel feast!

Manuscript Workshop with researchers from Hamburg University and Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich, Tel Aviv University, August 2022. Photo credit: Diana Lipton

The Orit Guardians program is designed to grow in stages. At present, our priority is our MA students, but other components are already underway. In its fullest form, our program will, we hope:

  • Digitize all known manuscripts of the Orit (without removing them even temporarily from private hands or synagogues, which may not be possible).
  • Analyze and catalogue Orit manuscripts, attempting to ascertain such issues as age; source (many Beta Israel manuscripts were produced by Christians, sometimes for the purpose of selling to Jews, and sometimes originally for Christian use and later adapted for Beta Israel); ownership; and significance of decorations and marginal comments.
  • Film as much of the recitation, translation, and interpretation of the Orit as we can, in more than one community for purposes of comparison. So far, we have conducted one day of filming, with another planned for later this month, on short passages of the Orit, and that alone required a significant investment of time and energy. Two additional days of filming have taken place under the auspices of the Ethiopian Jewry Heritage Center, with whom we are co-operating.
  • Conduct research of Beta Israel Orit manuscripts, alone and as compared to parallel Ethiopian Christian texts, which are also written in Ge’ez, originally translated from the Greek Septuagint. Disseminate the research outcomes through academic conferences and publications. As noted above, we have already established close cooperation with experts in the field at Hamburg and Ludwig Maximilian Universities, and we hope to develop those.
  • Build a team of highly qualified researchers, with a special emphasis on highly qualified researchers from the Beta Israel community. These, we hope, will be our students!

The costs of running even the core of the Orit Guardians program are significant. All our students have family, work, and community commitments, and depend on financial support to enable them to continue their studies. We are extremely grateful to the generous donors large and small who have supported our journey this far. Please get in touch if you would like to join them, or to find out more about the Orit Guardians.

About the Author
Before I moved to Israel in 2011, I was a Fellow of Newnham College, Cambridge (1997-2006), and a Reader in Hebrew Bible and Jewish Studies at King's College London (2007-2011). In Israel, I've taught Bible at Hebrew University's International School and, currently, in the Department of Biblical Studies at Tel Aviv University, where I am a Teaching Fellow and chair the Academic Steering Committee of the Orit Guardians MA program for Ethiopian Jews. I give a weekly parsha shiur at Beit Moses home for the elderly in Jerusalem. I serve on the Boards of Jerusalem Culture Unlimited (JCU) and Hassadna Jerusalem Music Conservatory. I'm the very proud mother of Jacob and Jonah, and I live in Jerusalem with my husband Chaim Milikowsky. My last book was 'From Forbidden Fruit to Milk and Honey: A Commentary on Food in the Torah'; proceeds go to Leket, Israel's national food bank. The working title of my next book, co-authored with Micha Price, is 'A Biblical Guide to the Climate Crisis'.
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